Polly Stenham’s credit as the author of Julie is followed with “after Strindberg” and indeed the play owes much to the Swedish misogynist’s Miss Julie but it is also a credible, modern re-imagination of the rich girl and the chauffeur. Julie is now playing on the Lyttleton stage of the National Theatre in London.
Stenham’s Julie is set in a large house in north London in 2018. She is hosting a wild party for her 33rd birthday and her father’s chauffeur Jean is helping the cook Kristina with the service. Jean is a sophisticated black man who is engaged to Kristina but Julie is attracted to him and they eventually have a relationship.
We focus on Julie’s complex character and Vanessa Kirby’s portrayal of her. At first blush, Julie seems like a spoiled rich bitch who squandered every opportunity she had in life. There is some truth in that. She has had too much to drink during her party and decides to seduce Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa) right under the nose of Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira).
A careful look at Julie reveals that she is a deeply troubled woman who seems to have everything when in fact she has nothing. There is a wild, almost orgiastic, party going on but she is not part of it. The guests are strangers. Her father is having nothing to do with her, her mother committed suicide, she is coming out of a broken relationship and she has had an abortion. She appears wealthy but in fact has no money because it is tied up in some trust fund or something. “Am I insane?” she asks and that may be a clue to her character.
Julie has physical, emotional and psychological problems that seem to add up to serious mental illness. She is drowning and has nothing to grasp onto except the straw near her, the servant Jean.
The summary of Julie’s character gives a good idea of the performance demanded of Kirby. She snorts drugs, takes pills, tries to have a good time at the party in a pathetic attempt at….at what? Kirby takes us through all the phases of Julie’s life in a stellar performance.
Jean is black and Julie crosses the racial, social and cultural divides to try and seduce him. He is ambitious and dumps Kristina whom he professes to love when he sees his opportunity to get money and move up the social ladder. The refined, intelligent and manipulative Jean is a fine foil for Julie.
Teixeura is a decent woman with a child and is perhaps looking for a way out of service but the lifeboat that Jean seems to provide leaves without her.
Director Carrie Cracknell does not miss a beat or a detail in her directing. Julie almost always walks on top of the furniture so she can look down on the “servants.” Julie’s deterioration from the woman having a grand party for her birthday to a pathetic creature on the floor is brought meticulously before us.
The production has two playing areas, the kitchen and the party room. Designer Tom Scutt has divided the stage horizontally in two so that the kitchen is the dominant playing area. But when we need to see the party, a panel goes up revealing the party just above the kitchen.
An outstanding production with a virtuoso performance by Vanessa Kirby.
Julie by Polly Stenham after Strindberg opened on June 7, 2018 and continues at the Lyttleton Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. It will be broadcast live from the National Theatre on September 6, 2018.